Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How I Ate in Chicago

It was obvious that we weren’t waiting for a city bus. We had luggage. We had scones in little brown bags. We looked unhurried. The conductor, who I’d wished would be wearing a little blue suit and cap, approached our cluster. He informed us that the bus would be late. Some rare, unforeseen calamity had occurred on I-71 and the bus was behind schedule.

I bolted for the nearest Starbucks and downed a muffin on the street corner while groups of travelers made chit-chat with each other. A man with huge, hulking shoulder bag informed anyone within earshot that he had a bicycle in his bag and would be biking to his destination when we reached Chicago.

The golden, morning sunshine evaporated into clouds when we crossed the Indiana border. Secretly, I blamed Indiana and not shifting weather fronts.

A few people left when we stopped in Indianapolis. More got on. I surrendered the second seat in my row to a guy who nearly fell asleep in my lap once we were underway. I gave up on the WiFi connection, which seemed strong enough for Facebook but too sketchy to try and do any work.

Imagine a girl running through the streets of downtown Chicago with a sleeping bag and rolling suitcase. Looks kind of funny, right? Now imagine it’s pouring rain and she has no umbrella or coat. That’s downright ridiculous. When the bus arrived at Union Station and my luggage was unceremoniously dumped on the sidewalk, I was that girl in the rain.

After a soaked, streetside reunion with my college roommate and a dash through town, we headed out for dinner at a Thai place called Jitlada, just around the corner from Jon's apartment.

Pad Thai sounded appealing. “They serve it with sugar on the side.” Jon had warned me. Sure enough, there was a little white pile of crystalline sugar hanging out next to the noodles. Being of the sweet-tooth-persuasion, this factor elevated the dish from merely good to how-fast-can-I-shovel-this-in-my-mouth good.

For dessert, our server brought each of us a chilled bowl with two lychees inside. I’ve decided to demand two cold lychee fruits after every meal, anywhere. I don’t want a chocolate mint, I’ll just take two lychees, please.

We did the thing that reunited college friends do when they get together – we drank all night. In a buzzing neighborhood with the rain finally gone, this is an excellent way to spend the evening. I recommend it.

…And breakfast arrives sooner than you’d like. We took a walk through Wrigleyville with a Cubs game in full swing, dodged red-faced fans and traffic, turned a few corners and came to the Pick Me Up Café. And that’s exactly what it did for us.

Black coffee. A mess of sautéed potatoes, peppers, tofu, and a good drenching with ketchup. It wasn’t elegant, but it was delicious. I expended all those calories doing these things:

  • Walking through the Lincoln Park Zoo (free!)
  • Shopping at H&M (not free)
  • Watching the fountain at Millenium Park (free!)

That kind of productivity will wipe a person out. Homemade nachos and puppy chow (Remember that stuff? Make some. Now.) rounded out my last night in Chicago.

And there I was, back on the street with my suitcase and sleeping bag, waiting again for a late bus. It arrived, stacked two layers high, which gave me a thrill. I raced for a seat on the top, imagining it would feel like flying once we got up to cruising speed on the highway. Turns out, it’s a lot like being on the bottom floor.

We did have time for a stop at McDonald’s, and as we pulled into the bus parking lot, I felt like a seven-year-old on a family car trip. I ate my filet o fish sandwich on the bus, stretching my legs over the empty seat next to me.

The Filet o Fish isn’t good. It barely qualifies as a sandwich, but there’s something about McDonald’s on a road trip that feels right. The light outside completely faded, we were back on the road and just an hour away from home.

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